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Art as Humor

By Eli Siegel


I laugh at chaffinch and at primroses.
—Robert Graves, "Not Dead"  

Art is humor, because reality is humor; and so, art as the essential showing of reality, shows reality in its humor. Humor in the long run is the seeing of reality as orderly and free, with the free predominating. Humor can be seen, too, as reality with sameness and difference, and the difference predominating; with concord and discord, and the discord predominating; with the symmetrical and unsymmetrical, and the unsymmetrical predominating; with the large and the small, and the small predominating; with the important and the unimportant, and the unimportant predominating; and so on.

      Every situation is humorous, for every situation has order and freedom. There is a flowing river. If we begin with the river as such, we begin with order. If we think of it briskly, somewhat uncertainly flowing, we are thinking of freedom. However, if we see the river as both order and freedom, we come to order again, and the beauty idea is predominant. We can, though, start with the brisk uncertain flow of the river. This can be made one with the lines of the river, its stateliness as such. We have order again. But if we go from this order to the briskness, uncertainty again, we see humor. Where we see disorder or freedom as containing order, as being in a way predominant, we are seeing something as humorous. If we see a lady as wearing a red, gay tassel, we can see order, dignity, symmetry. But if we see the same lady, in a picture or otherwise, with the lady belonging to the red, gay tassel, we are seeing humor.

There Is Jan van Eyck

There is the famous picture of John Arnolfini and His Wife by Jan van Eyck. There is beauty in the idea of the little dog right between the grave, thoughtful couple. The Arnolfinis formally include the assertive poodle, so a quaint discord is nicely a part of a larger, meditative something. But if we see—as we can—the couple as going with the poodle, with the poodle predominant, there is humor. As it is, the picture is humor. Suppose we take a sentence from Thomas Munro's comment on this picture from his Great Pictures of Europe (1930):

Even the man's face is modelled in comparatively broad, simplified planes.

That a human face should have "planes" is already queer: funny in both senses of the word. To say, however, that a "face is modelled in comparatively broad, simplified planes" is not humorous, unless we see the planes as different, predominantly, from the face while still being the face. It is this discord in concord, with discord accented, that is in all humor, in art as humor. Art, in other words, is concord in discord, but it is also discord in concord, or humor as art. The presence of concord and discord, just so, is neither art nor humor, just misery.

      This humor of reality and art can be seen in ourselves. To say that "I have bones" is not, as such, humorous. But when the bones are seen as apart from "I" and yet including the "I," going with the self, it is humorous. It should always be remembered that the humorous is not the same as the laughable, just as heat is not the same as what has made you warm sufficiently.

      The chandelier in the Van Eyck painting is a composition of metal, ups and downs, curves, light, restfulness: the chandelier has diversity. If we think of the rather frivolous diversity of the chandelier as including the order, the unity of the chandelier, while seeing the diversity first or predominantly, we see the chandelier as humorous. Composition does not only show the oneness of things: it shows the seemingly casual, conglomerate quality of things. Oneness to diversity is as "seriousness" is to "lightness." Seriousness and lightness are part of the story of humor.

      People have hesitated to see humor in painting; at least they haven't seen it. Take Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne. This picture is "silly" in the very best and sweetest sense of the word. The picture has a luscious disorder, a smooth confusion, symmetrical uproar about it. Certainly one can find humor, "silliness" of a noble kind, most engaging madness in this description by Thomas Munro:

It has one pervasive rhythm of clashing cymbals and swaying limbs, but it is not a dance in unison—something between that and a disorderly rout. Every figure has a different attitude, but all are swept onward in a continuous flow of waving arms and leaping, marching legs, to a climax in the weightless flying god, and an ending in the shrinking figure of Ariadne.

What have we here? We have energetic comedy. We have mythological fine roughhouse.

      Animals are used in a funny way by Titian in this picture. The unconcerned leopards next to "the weightless flying god" are of comedy. So is a gentle, active dog. In the whole picture, there is a deep and comic mingling of the concerned and unconcerned, the energetic and the immobile, the intense and the indifferent.

      There is much comedy in Renaissance art. Titian and Veronese have much muted, soberly hidden humor. It is as if we were asked to see a clown dressed in the most precious fabric, lying on a rich, black, smooth table. Maybe we'd hesitate to see the clown who was there.

Dignity and Comedy

To give lines to a tomato is to make the tomato more dignified, and to make lines a little comic. To say that a senator and an oak tree both have volume—and they do—is to make dignity and comedy inextricably one. To say that a sad child is related to a colored cube of wood is to show comedy as sober, sobriety as comic. And all these things, or the like, are done in painting; and are painting.

      El Greco's The Pentecost is deeply humorous. The mingling of fervency and gorgeous fabrics, of religion and luminous reds and oranges, has its philosophic jocosity. In the picture, as one can see in Munro's comment in his Great Pictures of Europe, there are intersecting triangles and prayer; patterns and fervor. These pairs have in them the comedy of reality.

A Comic Experience

Space and matter, color and line, volume and plane, are in a comic relation; we can see them that way in art. To feel matter as space sharply and deeply is a comic experience; to feel color as line, volume as plane that way, is, too. The experience of art includes a comic experience, too. We may not feel the 76 ½ cents as an entity in a unified dollar, but it is there.

      All the motion felt as motion in Constable's quiet The Haywain is humorous. That quiet should include motion, motion quiet, is one of the most essential things in the world; but it is comic. If you think of a curved line made suddenly straight, or a straight line suddenly curved, something laughable will be felt. But curved lines and straight lines are different and the same in a painting, suddenly and everlastingly.

      The fact that humor has been in all art has been felt more consciously in recent years. Cubism was serious, is serious, but finding planes and volumes, geometrical shapes in fruits, women, chickens, guitars, has its gay side. Dadaism is almost assertively gay, brashly comic. Surrealism accented the comedy of things noticeably, too. Giving tin cans fuzz, machines nymphs, nymphs machines, fishes to stones and stones to fishes, surely has its merriment.

Humor Is Reality Itself

Humor is not a choice incident in reality: it is reality itself. Since, as I said, art presents reality as itself, art must be humor, too. Everything is both the sensible and discrepant. Everything is meaningful and meaningless. Everything is solemn and twinkling. In one way or another, you take your pick. And, when one considers that in the late Middle Ages there was the Dance of Death, that there is the "danse macabre," one can see that within humor is the idea of death, too.

      It was said in the past (as it still can be) that art was "play." The lightness, the gaiety of art were pointed to, when it was described as "play." But art is very serious, too; in fact, it is religious. To see that a painting by Fra Angelico or Giotto or Seurat is both play and religion, both—the "free, unimpeded exercise of the creative intuition" and the most serious thing possible, is to see reality and art in all their grandeur as humor.

      The universe is casual. The universe frisks. Infinity is as silly as anything. Form exists and doesn't. Space is so important and unimportant. Red and green and yellow are so purely meaningless, yet so mighty in significance. Reality is an eyelash and a tombstone. The world is a butterfly's wing and heavy iron. It is that kind of world art shows. Art can be nothing else than humorous, then, if it is true, sincere. And so, within all art is humor.

      And so, art has tried to be faithful to the factual and divine humor in the things which are ourselves and our neighbors.


Copyright © by Definition Press 1960, 1962, 1974


NOTE. "Art as Humor " appeared in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, number 898, June 20, 1989.


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